Raise your hand if you are familiar with this scene: you have just arrived at the office after a good hour in the commute surrounded by too many people, made it all the way in stilettos from the suffocating underground to the company building carrying your take away coffee, laptop and birthday cake for Amanda from the accounting department, and then logged in on time to collapse on your desk.
This morning you had to skip Yoga because your child did not feel like dressing up and husband had the flu. Even so, you managed to make yourself presentable. You managed to dress up for you, to feel good. Then, Tom and Claire from the Creative Editing team say hello and absently comment on how nice your dress looks and, you know, how hard it must be to get ready every morning because well, it is SO hard maintenance — and aren´t you actually sick of spending some much time just to get ready in the morning when you have much more productive things to do, surely?
The thing is, you see, Tom and Claire do not mean IT is high maintenance. They mean YOU are. Déjà vu, anyone?
Shockingly, it seems to be socially acceptable to comment on other people appearance these days, especially women’s. With social media blooming, everyone spends a lot of time leaving opinions on posts to perfect strangers (“What a stunning outfit!” “Is that your husband?” “But have you gained some weight lately?”) and the scope of this phenomenon has naturally transformed our daily interactions. People seem to feel entitled to comment in real life too, just as they would on Instagram, and not always out of kindness. If you take a minute to scratch the surface, an interesting patina of tones appears underneath — the complete palette of social prejudice. Misconceptions die hard, even in the age of political correctness.
One of my personal pet peeves is related to criticism towards smartness.
Very frequently, people will frown at the sight of a nice dress, coat or bag, and discreetly let you know they don’t approve. The succession of reasons provided will pour like rain over you — it is too expensive, impractical, pretentious. But where is this perception coming from? And is elegance considered a disgraceful quality these days?
It might sound crazy when you read all those articles on the flamboyant latest catwalk designs from Paris Fashion Week, but in my experience, most people do not appreciate that kind of stylishness anymore, since they cannot consider it as an integrated part of ordinary life. While maintaining discussions on the topic, they will argue that several factors need to be taken into account. Frequently, the first ingredient they will bring into the conversation is classism. I don’t know about you, but I take class discrimination seriously and I don’t like it to be used on a frivolous manner.
Let me illustrate with an example. A few years ago, still a penniless humanities student, I found myself having a coffee with a recent acquaintance I’d had just been introduced to. By then, I would combine my college classes with a part-time job teaching foreign languages to kindergarten and school children. My allowance was very modest, and I carefully saved up and prioritized my expenses. I started spending some time hunting for good quality bargains at vintage and online shops. As a result and given the circumstances, my wardrobe grew up slowly but successfully. The girl I met that evening did not lose the chance to let me know she liked my dress although she would not understand why would I spend “so much money” on it. “It must be nice”, she said, “to get your expenses covered by your very understanding family, right?” Then she made a gesture with her hand, vaguely pointing out my clothes and manicure (a manicure that I would give myself at home every time). She shamelessly implied my family was rather wealthy. And I was far too shy to correct her rude judgmental statement. Then she proceeded to complain about the hard time she was having to find proper accommodation for her next holiday in Austria. I swear God I am not making this up.
My point is this person (as many other) linked dressing in a certain manner with a well-off economic and social status. And of course, she disapproved. Paradoxically, she was doing far better than me then. There is a big difference between dressing on designer pieces head to toe and carefully crafting your style. Still, many people don’t see it that way. If you are able to gather a luxury couture wardrobe, good for you too! I see no reason to shame anyone here.
Next argument detractors hold against smartness is practicality.
We all know how crazy life is these days: we find ourselves rushing on a daily basis and sometimes we don’t even take a minute to enjoy. Now, I am as busy as the next person (just as much as you probably are) and always try to wear clothes which easily adjust to my daily activity. I work in the comfort of an office, but flats will win three out of four times when it comes to commuting.
However, since I have not much time to stop and smell the flowers, I like to do some small things to indulge myself. They do not need to be big impressive things, necessarily: cooking something nourishing, buying a nice book to read in the evenings, dressing up a bit. They are the small everyday pleasures I use to comfort myself and to keep inner balance. Even so, there will be always people judging you. Do not listen to them. As our friend Taylor Swift once taught us — haters gonna hate.
But my favourite plot is the high maintenance one.
Because well, you know, if you are wearing nice clothes it obviously means that you are some kind of spoiled creature, right? In the course of years, I have been seen people repeatedly gossiping about women who make an effort with their appearance. “But look at her!”, they would say, “She thinks she is some kind of queen, doesn’t she? I bet she even needs a maidservant to get dressed in the morning”. Do you think I am exaggerating here? I wish I was. I literally heard someone who used to talk behind my back calling me “a duchess”. In case you’re wondering why my only sin was to dress up for a casual outing with some friends… No need to say I have heard similar comments about friends, siblings and work colleagues.
Probably, the most unfair factor here is the insane amount of misogyny lying behind the question. Women are judged twice harder than men. If a man is smart, he will be usually praised for it. On the contrary, if a woman develops a taste for fashion, she will be considered frivolous. They will say she is wearing too much makeup or dressing up to catch men attention… However, if this fictitious woman freely decides to wear a bare face or comfortable sports clothes, she will be considered sloppy and lazy. Pick your poison.
Double standards will never let us women win and that is the reason why we need to stop contributing to the problem by criticizing other ladies and start fighting in the sorority team. I know it is not always easy, as we have been all raised on prejudice and socialized on a system whose deeper structures work against individualism. Every time we choose to deconstruct these ideas and stop the gears, we are placing ourselves in the line of fire. It is a conscious decision and it takes guts to do it. Still, it is the right thing to do.
Next time Tom and Claire make a passive-aggressive comment to your office colleague in front of you, do not look the other way. Let them kindly know it is not OK to express unsolicited opinions about other people looks. Maybe they are not conscious about being inadvertently rude. If they are though, you will make them notice this kind of behaviour is not welcome around the place. At the end of the day, we are all people who deserve some respect, no matter what are looks, beliefs or origins are.
And this was another episode of The Prêt-à-porter Series. In the next chapter, we will have a talk about some basic tips to dress up for a Brunch.
Stay tuned for more style advice!